By SUSAN JACOBSON | Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Florida firearms enthusiasts will save a few dollars starting this month because of a new law that eliminates the sales tax on gun club memberships.

The change, which state records show will cost $1.2 million annually, was advocated by the National Rifle Association.

Marion Hammer, a Florida lobbyist and past president of the NRA, said the group became aware in 2010 that the state Department of Revenue had stepped up its collection of sales tax on gun club memberships. The Tallahassee Rifle & Pistol Club was hit with a bill for $20,000 in back taxes, she said.

“So when clubs have to start borrowing money to pay taxes they didn’t know they owed that are being illegally imposed, then what’s going on?” Hammer asked.

The department at the time denied it had accelerated enforcement.

The NRA contends that taxing the memberships violated state law on the regulation of guns and ammunition. Former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp sent a letter to the Department of Revenue in June 2010 urging it to stop collecting the tax and issue refunds. He said the levy appeared to defy Florida law and possibly the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

But the department’s then-executive director, Lisa Echeverri, said dues were taxable if they entitled members to use firing ranges or other facilities. The law in effect before this month provided for taxes on dues and fees paid to private clubs and membership clubs, which the Department of Revenue interpreted to include gun clubs. Echeverri, who no longer heads the department, wrote in a reply to Kottkamp that most other states had similar practices.

The NRA decided to tackle the problem by proposing a law that explicitly prohibited taxing the memberships, Hammer said. It doesn’t apply to admission charges at public gun ranges.

“This was not about the slippery slope or chipping away at rights,” Hammer said. “This was about the Department of Revenue willfully and knowingly violating state law and taxing constitutional rights.”

Ernest Myers, vice president and attorney for the Central Florida Rifle & Pistol Club, said the southeast Orange County club paid more than $45,000 in back taxes the Department of Revenue said it owed and was collecting sales tax until the new law went into effect July 1.

“We thought it was an unfair position because we’re not like a tennis club or a golf club,” said Myers, a civil lawyer who also represents some Orlando-area gun ranges. “On top of that, we are a nonprofit.”

Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Carlos Guillermo Smith, however, criticized the tax exemption as “another gift to the NRA, certainly.” State Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, inserted the provision into a broader tax-cut package. He could not be reached for comment.

“I just think this Legislature’s priorities are screwed up, and this latest giveaway of unnecessary gifts to conservative voters is a waste of time, and money,” said Smith, a candidate for Florida House Seat District 49.

Not all Democrats agreed. State Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, said he voted for the package because he thought breaks it included on taxes on communications services and school clothes and supplies would benefit working-class Floridians.

“(The right to bear arms) is a fundamental constitutional right, so I can see where my peers are coming from,” Soto said. “But it wasn’t a major decision point for me.”

Gil Conrad, vice president of the Eustis Gun Club, said his group hasn’t gotten into the politics of the issue. The club didn’t mind paying the tax, but it appreciates being able to hold membership costs steady now that the new law is in effect.

“We’re happy about it,” Conrad said. “It’s saving our people money.”

Locally, basic individual gun club memberships run from about $120 to about $250 annually, making the savings between $8.40 and $16.25. At pricier clubs, such as the South Florida Shooting Club in Martin County, which charges $1,800, the tax savings will top $100.

Gun club membership fees join previously established exemptions from sales tax that include admissions to National Football League championships and Pro Bowl games, admissions to Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League all-star games, entry fees for freshwater fishing tournaments and admission to postseason collegiate football games sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

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Information from: Orlando Sentinel, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/